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The Unlettered Prophet (6)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)

The status of prophethood brings huge responsibilities with it. Whosoever God wishes to impart this status to is also given special training from his birth. A prophet is entrusted to deliver messages related to the obligations of human beings towards each other and towards their Creator, the remembrance of divine instructions, and warns his people of the guidance that he receives from God. Such messages strike at the worldly interests of the people of the time. Most people, in general, and a specific group of people in particular resent the prophets and ultimately revolt against them. If the prophet has not faced resistance or difficulties earlier, or is unaware of how human beings behave under different situations, he may find it difficult to perform his task of prophethood effectively. Training is provided to him under God’s supervision, and He provides special support and assistance, making extraordinary arrangements to help the prophet emerge from exceptionally difficult challenges in life.

The Pharaoh of Egypt was an extremely cruel and merciless ruler, who had forced his people to worship him as their god. When Moses (sws) was assigned to preach faith to him, he had been brought into the world under very hard conditions. The Pharaoh had given orders to kill all new born males of Moses (sws)’s family. God put the idea in his mother’s heart to place the new born in a basket and cast it adrift in the river, leaving it to its destiny. As the basket went by the Pharaoh’s palace, the latter’s childless wife saw it, ordered it to be taken out of the water, and seeing a beautiful baby inside, insisted that she would bring it up herself. Thus Moses (sws) had the opportunity to be brought up in the king’s court, among the elite of Egypt and understand their ways, and their approach to life. He observed the conflict between the Coptic Egyptians and the tribes of the Israelites from Kananah who had settled in Egypt, the latter’s oppressed state and the former’s aggression. Once in the city he saw an Egyptian torturing a Kananī, and in an attempt to free the latter, he hit out at the Egyptian. Unknowingly, he hit a fatal blow. Moses (sws) was deeply affected and asked God for his forgiveness. On advice from a sympathetic courtier, he left the city and went to Madyan, where he stayed for some time. He took employment to look after someone’s sheep and goats, and learnt from their owner the art of preaching good. All these experiences were such that they honed his personality and brought depth and a deep calm to his character. When this training was completed, he was given prophethood, was instructed to preach in the court of the Pharaoh, and also told that he had been specially trained for this purpose. (Qur’an, 20:41)

Joseph (sws) had been subjected to the cruelty of his half brothers since childhood. This had made him strong in the face of adversity. When his brothers threw him in a blind well, God protected him, and gave him into the slavery of a rich man in Egypt. Here he learnt to handle his master’s estate and also farming, storage and management of agricultural yield. He experienced the problems of bondage, and of being in jail without being guilty. Thus his exposure to such travails of life helped him to develop piety, patience and steadiness of purpose. This training was of much use to him when he was finally released from prison.


Muhammad (sws)’s Orphanhood

This is exactly what transpired also with Muhammad (sws), according to the established practice of God. When he was born, his father had already died and so he was deprived of a father’s love and kindness. Orphans were often mistreated in Arab society. They were considered to be without any backing or support and were easy prey for relatives who would usurp their inheritance, leaving them poor and wanting in material wealth.

The details of the difficulties that Muhammad (sws) had to face due to his being an orphan are not known to biographers. It does seem that he had a hard life. When according to the Quraysh custom, his mother tried to arrange for a foster mother from among the Banu Sa‘d tribe, none were ready to take him because he was an orphan. Finally a poor nurse took him in for breastfeeding.

He had some time with his mother when he was brought back to Makkah after spending a few years in the desert, but this peaceful period was a short one. His mother took him to Yathrab and, on their way back, she died at Abwa’, and he was once again orphaned. Had she remained alive, she would have made efforts to bring him up and ensure that he got an opportunity to get proper status in society. Now this chance was also lost. His grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib took him under his wing. This situation, too, only lasted two years and when Muhammad (sws) was eight years old, his grandfather passed away. On account of being a member of the Banu Hashim family, he was under the general trusteeship of the tribe as a whole, but then he faced the responsibility of standing on his own feet. His father had died in his youth and had left no inheritance. Perhaps it was with reference to this time, when people were talking about other prophets being shepherds, he mentioned that he too had been engaged in grazing the goats of his family in Makkah.

A shepherd pays full attention to each and every animal of his herd. If any of the sheep or goats becomes lame, or is ill and refuses to eat, he devotes his time and care to it. If any strays away from the herd, he searches for it and gets it back safely. If wolves are to be found close to the grazing area, and they attack the herd, he keeps the necessary equipment with him ready to drive them away. The same process is also used to build the character of a human being. It is likely that God enabled his would be prophets to obtain training of shepherding animals so that they would learn how to take care of their people and protect them against the onslaught of satanic forces. Muhammad (sws) also said:

 Each one of you is a shepherd, and shall be questioned about your herd.1

 Because of this training, the Prophet (sws) kept in contact with each one of his companions separately and participated in what was happening in their lives, congratulating them in happiness, and commiserating with them in sorrow. Thus he gave them individual attention and trained them accordingly.


The Search for a Livelihood

When the Prophet (sws) reached an age when he was required to earn a living, he started to travel for purposes of trade, as other young men of the Quraysh did. These travels gave him the opportunity to see new lands, observe the ways of living of their people and learn of new trading arrangements. This training which was available to him in his early youth was of great benefit to him. Through it, he not only obtained direct knowledge of various regions of his own country, but of other places and the behaviour, attitudes, customs and traditions of the people living here. This knowhow was of much use to him when he was appointed to preach the faith and called upon to discuss and debate with individuals and groups on several matters.


Support to the Oppressed

The Prophet (sws) had the company of good people from the very beginning. Young men with high integrity and sense of moral values were his friends. He also had the opportunity to be involved in consultations and decisions making on matters with elders holding exemplary character. When he was only 20 years old, he participated in the agreement called hilf al-fadul with a group of individuals having high standing in society. This agreement and the group had a very good effect on society, and people became more receptive to helping the poor. Later, the Prophet (sws) would often speak of how much he had learned by working for this agreement.

When God aims to train his messengers and subjects them to harsh trials, He also demonstrates His great glory whereby no ill befalls His prophets. All the despicable schemes and plans of the Pharaoh to kill Moses (sws) could not harm him. Similarly, despite losing both father and mother in childhood, the Prophet’s grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib, uncle Zubayr and Abu Talib gave him love and support, although normally orphans were rejected and deserted by relatives, and not allowed to rise in the world. They faced extraordinary challenges to earn a decent living. But the Prophet (sws) managed to do all this and barriers began to lift for him one by one. His real wealth was the inner contentment related to matters of the spirit, and not to material resources. Referring to these blessings, the Qur’an, addressing the Prophet (sws), says:


Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter? And found you wandering and guided you? And found you in need and enriched you? (6-8)


The purpose was that the Prophet (sws) should adopt an attitude of supporting orphans, sympathizing with the poor and the needy and taking care of them. This is the reason why we see so much benevolence and sympathy with the weak, ways to free slaves and love for orphans in the life of the Prophet (sws).


Religious Leanings

Another aspect of the training of apostles was that God would make sure that they were fully informed of the environment in which they were to present His teachings. They were aware of their beliefs, objects of worship and love, the perceived good and bad features of their characters and their moral weaknesses. They understood well their way of thinking and and their psychological make up. For example, Shu‘ayb (sws)’s nation was involved with trade, so he was a trader too, and knew all the honest practices. They blamed him for creating barriers for them so that he could benefit his own trading operation. The people played underhand tricks. This is why when he as a messenger of God exposed their wrongdoings, they blamed him by saying that by casting moral allegations on their character he wanted to further his own interest at their expense. They were aware of his trade acumen and his ability for assessment. They were expecting him to use his experience and sharp wit to benefit them all, and were disappointed to see that he was trying to prevent them from enhancing their own profits by unfair means.

Abraham (sws) was born amongst people who were not only worshippers of idols, but were their sculptors and trustees of idol houses. Brought up in such an environment, he became thoroughly familiar with every aspect of the extent of adulation and love that people had for these statues. After his prophethood, when he called on his people to accept the oneness of God, he used his access to the idol house and smashed all the idols there, thus showing them the futility of their worship.

Since Muhammad (sws) was to be made a prophet amongst the Ishmaelites, and he was to revive the nation of Abraham (sws), he was born in the central city of the Ishmaelites, Makkah, in the dignified and ruling tribe of the Quraysh. Thus he had full information about their dependence on the idols and their beliefs. He was also knowledgeable about all of the wrongs done to the tribes by each other. He made use of this vast knowledge of the tribes in Arabia after he was granted prophethood.

The Qur’an says that when Abraham (sws) decided to break all the statues in the Ka‘bah’s as a conclusive argument to his plea, his nation had prepared a fire in which to burn him. God saved him from this and asked him to migrate from the place. While leaving, Abraham (sws) expressed his disgust openly at his people and at their polytheism. God liked this expression so much that He ordered it to remain as a tradition in his future generations forever. Good people continued to pass it on to their descendants. This is why although, with the passage of time, polytheism had become a way of life with the Ismaelites, there was still a group left who followed the faith of its original ancestor and kept firm to his hatred of shirk. This group was known as hanīf during the times of the jahilliyah. These people worshipped the Ka‘bah and tried to follow only the traditions that came to them in their original form from Abraham’s time, but criticized the innovations that had crept in later. They were honest, with high moral values, sympathetic to the poor, providing support in good deeds and staying away from immoral ones. The Prophet (sws) was a prominent member of this group before the divine revelation. He would never participate in the polytheistic customs and immoral activities of his people. His actions were always those of one with integrity, honesty and truthfulness. As such, people held him with a lot of respect and regard.


Search for the Truth 

It should be remembered that the first source of guidance for man is the voice of his own conscience. The people who are chosen by God for prophet hood are blessed with the qualities of a nature that always follows the path of true morality from the beginning. Such individuals believe in the oneness of God and the Day of Judgment, and are well aware of the difference between good and evil, and wrong and right of human actions that have been ingrained within their nature. In spite of this, such a fire for knowledge burns inside them that they wish to arrive at the absolute truth so that they can accept it with an open mind and make it their guiding light. It has been stated in Surah Hud that Salih (sws) and Shu‘ayb (sws) told their people that even before they had been made apostles, they were on the path of a “clear evidence,” ie. the purity of their nature had directed them towards the path of their Lord, and their heart had given evidence that it was the true path. They were able to declare that assigning any partner to God and other criminal acts were wrong. Afterwards when God sent His wahī upon them, the voice of their nature was reinforced multifold. The knowledge that they had gained through the wahī caused it to become stronger and brighter. This was the addition of the light of the wahī over that of their nature.

This is also true in case of Muhammad (sws). His life was one of uprightness and highest morality. Despite living in the centre of idol worship, he remained aloof and untouched by the evils of polytheism. It has been narrated that the people belonging to the hanīf group of Makkah would lean against the walls of the Ka‘bah, and pray thus: “Our Lord, we do not know how to worship You: if we did, we would have done so accordingly.” Muhammad (sws) was in this condition of bewilderment and uncertainty, as is referred to in the Qur’an.


You did not know the Scripture before this, nor the laws of faith. (42:52)


The reason for this is that, whatever the concept of faith, unless a man is aware of the details, he remains concerned about whether what he is doing is right or not, if it is according to the truth and whether it is acceptable to God. He is only at peace when he is completely convinced of the true path that he is to follow. A divine Book meets this need. It clarifies the requirements and demands of faith and provides practical ways of practicing faith. After the revelation of the Book, man can use the guidance that his own nature provides judiciously and adopt a religious life style. It is a requirement of the status of prophethood that the prophet achieve the highest level of wisdom and understanding of faith and religious matters. Each and every matter should be as clear to him as if he sees it with his own eyes.  Once he has fully accepted the faith, he is ready to preach to his addressees with full belief and certainty. Until the need for divine guidance through wahī is satisfied, the prophet is in constant search of the truth. The Qur’an mentions this state of mind of the Prophet (sws) in the following words:


Did He not find you perplexed, and show you the way? (93:7)


Worship at Night

In this search for truth, Muhammad (sws) would offer other Abrahamic rituals of worship such as the prayer, the fast, circumambulation, hajj and animal sacrifice and reflect deeply over what the truth could be. He became reclusive and he started to stay away from the city, spending time in meditation in a cave at the top of a mountain. He would take some edibles, stay in the cave of Hira and return to his family when his supplies were finished. This going and coming continued for a long time. There were others also who spent time away from their families and friends, praying and meditating, reflecting and thinking about God and the truth of life and their existence. This form of worship and deep reflection prepared Muhammad (sws) and purified his heart to receive the light of the divine revelation.

It will not be correct to say that this form of worship is similar to that which priests or soothsayers use to meditate or go into trances as a part of their training. Such individuals spend a lifetime in developing skills in their chosen profession and the world knows about their desires. People who know them are well aware of their training and see them build up their skill step by step. The situation with prophets is very different. They have no desire to acquire any skills. The status of prophethood is not an acquired one, nor is it skill oriented. It is a gift from God. A prophet is not a disciple; he does not obtain training on how to meditate from any teacher, and he has no thought in his mind that he is, in any way, eligible or worthy of being a prophet. Also, such an experience is not an ordinary one or one that one can learn from the example of others. Only those have experienced it to whom God wished to grant this lofty status. This is why the early experiences that a prophet goes through are completely novel, strange and unfamiliar to him. Hence, one of the features of his training by God is that he is subjected to some extraordinary situations that could familiarize him with certain aspects of prophethood.


Dreams giving Glad Tidings

After passing the stage of purification of his soul through solitary worship, another change that came upon Muhammad (sws) was that he started having dreams bearing good tidings. These were as bright as the light of dawn after a dark night. These had a powerful effect on him. It seems that the purpose of such dreams was to prepare him to be strong enough in heart and mind to bear the blessings of being one with the angels and being a recipient of the divine light.


Ray of Light

According to authentic books, once when Muhammad (sws) was engrossed in his prayers and spiritually linked to his Lord, an angel appeared suddenly, and said, “read.” He answered: “I cannot read.” At this, the angel embraced him so tightly that he started to hurt him. He let him go and asked him again to read. He replied again that he could not. The angel caught him in an even tighter embrace that hurt him extremely. He was once again instructed to read and he gave the same answer. The angel embraced him for the third time and said: “Read, in the name of your Lord, Who created man from a particle of blood. Read and your Lord is highly Merciful.” Having said this, the angel disappeared.

Muhammad (sws) was very perturbed by the entire episode and came home, trembling. In great fear and distress, he asked his wife to put a blanket over him. When he had recovered somewhat, his wife inquired about the reason for his anguish. He told her, and expressed fear for his life. She consoled him, reassuring him by saying that he maintained links with relatives, was truthful, bore the burden of the weak, was hospitable, took care of the poor and helped those affected by disasters; why should God put his life in danger? She was certain that this incident would bring good news for him, and suggested that her cousin, Warqah ibn Nawfal who was a scholar, a very righteous man and had knowledge of the holy books should be told and asked for advice. The Prophet (sws) liked this suggestion and went to Warqah ibn Nawfal, telling him the whole story. He said that he thought the same angel who had come to Moses (sws) had also come to him. Then he expressed the wish to be alive when the Prophet’s people would banish him from this city. Muhammad (sws) was astonished at this, and asked whether they would do this to him, at which he replied that whoever had brought such a message earlier had been treated to the same fate by his people.

Warqah ibn Nawfal was one of the people belonging to the hanīf group of Makkah. He was a truth seeking individual, who, after much research and thought, had realized that the true faith was with the Christians. He had converted to Christianity, learned Hebrew and was able to read and understand the Torah. Thus he was aware of God’s instructions and the predictions about the last prophet in the holy books. He had become old by that time and died soon after.

From this authentic narrative that appears with a little variation of words in both Sahīh Bukharī and Sahīh Muslim, we can deduce the following:

1. Muhammad (sws) himself does not say that an angel had appeared before him. This is a narration by a third person. The angel did not introduce himself. That is why the Prophet was curious to find out who he might have been from a more knowledgeable person. Warqah ibn Nawfal, having read of similar situations with other prophets, knew what may have happened to Muhammad (sws).

2. Even though he knew that the signs were those of a divine revelation, Warqah ibn Nawfal did not tell Muhammad (sws) that he has been made a prophet. That is, he did not accept his prophethood yet.

3. Warqah ibn Nawfal was a truthful man, and it was his search for the truth that had led him to adopt Christianity as his faith. If it had been clear to him that Muhammad (sws) was a prophet, he would not have hesitated to accept him and declare his faith, thus attaining the status of being the first one to do so. Instead, he assailed his ill health, and expressed a desire to be alive until the success of the Prophet (sws). Thus, in the incident of the cave, he saw signs of future prophethood for Muhammad (sws).

4.The only demand made by the angel was “read.” This word is used in Arabic to read by oneself, as well as to read out aloud to others. The word has been used in the latter sense in the Qur’an several times. In this form, it would mean to read out aloud to others. This is thus an explanation of the responsibilities of a prophet to communicate the message of God to other people.

5. The angel gave an instruction, but did not explain what was to be read. He left this unsaid, and disappeared. Muhammad (sws) repeatedly told him that he was illiterate; what could he read out to others? In contrast, when Moses (sws) saw a bright light on a tree and went close, he realized that he was designated a prophet from the very first wahī, and that he was required to correct the beliefs of his people and establish forms of worship amongst them. He did not need to carry out any questioning or research to determine this fact.

6. The angel embraced the Prophet (sws) thrice, probably with the aim of opening up his chest so that he was able to read, but this did not happen. He was not able to do so in later life either. We need to determine another purpose for this act of the angel.

7. There is no evidence in biographical books or the Hadīth that the Prophet (sws) may have started preaching immediately after the incident of Hira. He was unsure of his own status, and did not have any message to pass on to others.

In view of the above points, we can conclude that this experience was a part of his training, and an introduction to the angel of wahī. The Prophet (sws) was thus informed that such an angel would come to him in the future to give him a message from God which he would be required to communicate to his people. It is not correct to claim that the incident in the cave was the beginning of prophethood, or that the first wahī was revealed here.

As far as the angel addressing and embracing Muhammad (sws) several times is concerned, Amīn Ahsan Islahī explains it thus:


It is an extremely delicate matter for a human being to come into contact with a spiritual force. It becomes necessary to make one’s heart and mind ready and able by frequent meetings, frequent contact and frequent connections. The angel embracing him, and then letting him go many times could mean that he wished the prophet to become familiar with his being and voice and to be comfortable with him. The idea was that when the next meeting happened, the prophet would be reassured that it was not the devil but his old friend who had reappeared.2


This means that the wahī was only meant as an introduction to the angel, and the matter of the main wahī, and the designation of prophethood was left to a later date.

According to narratives, the angel did not reappear for a long time. This period is often called the breaking of the wahī, which is an incorrect term, in our view. How could the wahī be broken off when it had not begun in the first place? Actually, wahī began when the angel came for the second time, and this was after some time had lapsed.

The reason why the incident of the cave is cited as the revelation of the wahī is the narration that ascribes the first few verses of Surah ‘Alaq to the angel when he embraced Muhammed (sws). Some questions arise at this that remain unanswered:

1.            If Muhammad (sws) had received the wahī, why was he doubtful about his prophethood and why did he go to Warqah ibn Nawfal and ask what had happened to him? He should have said with full conviction that he had received divine revelation in such and such words and been ordered to communicate it. But he did not.

2.            When Moses (sws) received the wahī, he was explained the basic elements of faith and given instructions related to his responsibilities. In contrast, if Muhammad (sws) was given Surah ‘Alaq, he was told to read, but there was no message here. It contains only a few attributes of God.

3.            The ummah has not unanimously accepted Surah ‘Alaq being the first wahī. Sahīh Muslim narrates from Yahya: “I asked Abu Salamah, which part of the Qur’an was revealed first?” He said: “Surah Muddaththir.” I asked: “Not Surah Iqra?” He said: “He had asked the same question of Jabir bin ‘Abdullah who had said “Surah Muddaththir.” When I asked: “Did Surah Iqra not come first?” He said: “I am saying what I have heard Muhammad (sws) say.”3

From this narrative it becomes clear that this difference of opinion had begun in the early days, when some people regarded Surah Iqra to be the first wahī, and others took Surah Muddaththir to be the first, with reference to the Prophet (sws). The latter surah includes some instructions for the Prophet (sws) and tells him to preach. This is not true for Surah Iqra.

It seems, therefore, that the narrative describing verses of Surah ‘Alaq to be the first wahī is not very dependable. Here, the opinion of Amin Ahsan Islahī is worth noting:


The instruction to read by beginning in the name of God is very significant. The predictions about Muhammad (sws) in ancient books say that the last prophet would preach in the name of His Lord (here the Mawlana has copied verses 8:18-19) of the Book of Exemption which is based on this prediction)…. If we accept that the angel had only said “read, in the name of your Lord”, this is an indication of the fulfillment of this prediction. In this case, it is correct for Muhammad (sws) to say that he does not know what it is that he has to read, and for the angel to say that he must read in the name of his Lord, He will tell him what to read. In my view, the angel had said: “Read, in the name of your Lord,” and his purpose was to prepare thes Prophet (sws) to read out the message of God to people.4


The Prophet’s Nervousness

A question arises as to why the Prophet was (sws) so nervous when faced with the angel that he left his prayers and went home in a state of fear and panic. It was only after some time that he was able to talk and relate to his wife what had happened. We believe that he was fully occupied in his worship and his mind free of any other thought or plans. He had no foresight of any divine spirit appearing before him in such a manner. He was thus unnerved by this unfamiliar experience. It was not also made clear to him why the angel had appeared.

The Prophet (sws) was going through a training period here. On the other hand, Moses (sws) already knew that he had been made a prophet and was given his instructions. But when he implemented the miracle of his stick becoming a snake, he became frightened and ran away and did not look back. He had not foreseen that this would happen. He was reassured and told that prophets were not supposed to be frightened.

Such conditions faced by prophets are temporary. When they receive wahī again and again, they become fully satisfied that their experiences are from God and they are being appointed for a very special task. 



(Translated from Hayat-i Rasul-i Ummī by Nikhat Sattar)



1. Muslim ibn al-Hjjaj, Al-Jami‘ al-sahīh, vol. 2, 125.

2. Amīn Ahsan Islahī, Taddabur-i Hadīth, Sharh Sahīh Bukharī, vol. 2 (Lahore: Idarah Tadabbur-i Qur’an u Hadīth, 2002), 28.

3. Muslim ibn al-Hjjaj, Al-Jami‘ al-sahīh, vol. 1, 80.

4. Amīn Ahsan Islahī, Taddabur-i Hadīth, Sharh Sahīh Bukharī, vol. 1, 29.

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